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FringeReview UK 2017

Low Down

Chloe Lamford’s stripped-back set exudes a caged fragility. Teho Teardo’s music drips through with moody grace. Lizzie Powell lights these wan figures in a bleak kitchen stached with dirty white kerosene containers. Sam Pritchard paces this at the right clip, with sudden oracular suspensions from cast monologues. Till October 21st.


Cross Accidental Death of an Anarchist and some earnest BBC2 Play for Today of around 1970 – let’s call it Rebels Without a Clue – and you’d get a flavour of what it means to say cheese.


Cheese or B is the word two young women use for the bomb they’re expecting from a far more seasoned campaigner after the first scene of neighbour Carmen (Sarah Niles) comforting the more vulnerable of the two girls, Marcela (Aimée-Ffion Edwards) about the death of her boyfriend from a bomb. It’s the depthless reason Marcela’s dreamed up to convince Carmen the impending birthday party is strictly private. It’s certainly a dress-up as Marcela and Danusia Samal’s elder, more sussed Alejandra swathe up in headscarves for the arrival of giftbox-bearing, equally shrouded José Miguel. He’s a finger-pointing desperado in shades and scarves, Paul Kaye tensed like an S mine. For a Western audience now, it sends fingers pointing elsewhere, but here the scarf colours are simply complementary.


Chloe Lamford’s stripped-back set in eggshell and a dividing wall designed like the back of a set, exudes a caged fragility, or porousness. Teho Teardo’s music drips through on occasion with moody grace or the sense of an egg timer. Lizzie Powell lights these wan figures in a bleak kitchen stached with dirty white kerosene containers. The only thing that looks professional is that hatbox confection where the cheese crouches. Contrasts between Kaye’s character and the two women couldn’t at first be more striking. Sam Pritchard paces this at the right clip, with sudden oracular suspensions from cast monologues.


But this play is blackly comic. Why does Carmen say of the faux-dead-lover ‘you’ll find another Tiger of Malaysia’ in a consolatory aria emphasising Marcela’s future happy nakedness? What? It’s picked up later. The nineteen-year-old Marcela is in any case more a believer in bang culture than bomb culture. Alejandra unlike her doesn’t mind the prospect of prisons: all their friends are there, some are dead. The tensions between screwing up storylines for the judgemental José Miguel exposes fault-lines before we’ve reached the examining big cheese. Masks literally slip.


The crux is dirty bombs, again literally. It’s Marcela who reluctantly opts to defecate into the bomb cavity later mixed to cause terminally infectious wounds (José Miguel insisting how he cleaned the pen used is just one comic cringe amongst many). It gives onto the fissures between generations: what we mean about effective protest in right-wing neo-liberal neo-democracies. Marcela and Alejandra are perhaps prepared to be killed, but not to kill.


José Miguel’s speech ‘We used to kill kings. we used to kill millionaires. And now all we do is makes threats on the internet’ is like being visited by some righteous uncle of the revolution long thought dead. He looks like he’s spring out of that Jack-in-the-Box. As he litanises how he left to learn his trade in every sixteenth of the globe you see how Calderon allows his anger genuine elbow yet the blankness of options. No consolatory vision, and the status quo isn’t acceptable.


Both apprentices are allowed recits and Alejandra an aria too. Marcela’s about Martin who did blow himself up summarises her naïve personalising, her friend’s more affirmative and explanatory. Carmen pops in for several teasing ones too. ‘Don’t become too intelligent… my brain is free. Actually it’s the second most free organ in my body.’


You might guess where this is headed, but not quite. Calderon’s eighty-five minute piece flutters with slapstick and conscience-tickling. They’re absurd but in part knowingly so, mirroring the absurdity of the repressive options Chile and elsewhere have known. Calderon mixes farcical naturalism mixed with cheese gags and slippery cheese-skins with people not quite knowing what they want.


Niles – here last year in The Sewing Group and Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts I, 2 and 3) – makes an excellent Carmen, raising and centring the comedy with subversive homebody homilies. Edwards, first known for Donmar period work like Trelawney of the Wells and The Recruiting Officer makes Marcela affecting, a simple burning sincerity that shouldn’t have to be kindled. Samal, most recently in The Rover and other RSC work ideally foils with her more seasoned, still youthful indirection; there’s clarity, showing what the Swan Stratford enjoys and Londoners don’t. Kaye, whose farcically narcissistic figure in The Suicide lifted that production at the National, naturally has the parodic contrast with Carmen to fill out, wired as he is to invisible pulleys of thirty years, twitching him every which way like a Catweazle of the People.


We need more Calderon and more of the Court’s excellent International Playwrights programme. ‘Those who are still laughing’, Brecht claimed grimly, ‘have not heard the terrible news.’ Yet he always laughed and Calderon, in William Gregory’s idiomatic translation ensures this piece is memorable because we laugh, scratch our heads, perhaps look furtively at our bags.